The NHL is going through an expansion process. With bids coming in from Las Vegas and Quebec City, as well as NHL talks with prospective owners in the Seattle area, it’s a question of when and not if for expansion in the NHL.
Of course, with expansion to the NHL, expansion will come to the minor leagues as well. The AHL currently has 30 teams to match the NHL, while the ECHL is at 28 and have their own cap at 30 teams for the time being. Obviously, if the NHL were to expand to 32, you could bet that the AHL and ECHL would also move their caps up in the years succeeding the NHL’s movement, with the AHL possibly giving the NHL teams a year or two to share an affiliation before urging them to get their own to coincide with the bylaws of one parent team per AHL team. The ECHL, on the other hand, is quite used to having teams share affiliates, so that won’t cause too much of an issue just yet.
However, a new company has launched and is aimed at helping the leagues explore expansion option, as well as owners of current teams who may have to look at relocations. That group is called Hat Trick Consultants (HTC).
For those not familiar, Hat Trick Consultants is a company who has worked with markets such as Fenton, Missouri and Worcester County, Maryland, giving their advice to those local councils in an attempt to build an arena for bringing a minor league franchise into those areas. With Fenton, HTC knew that the market had the potential of being a solid one with its close proximity to St. Louis, as well as an arena plan that is quite unique.
“We wanted to go with a retro arena design which would bring back the feel of the great old NHL arenas, but on a smaller scale,” said Mike Barack, President of Hat Trick Consultants in a phone interview. “They don’t have a multi-purpose facility like that and it could draw some revenue with other events they would be able to hold there.”
For the Worcester County, Maryland bid; Barack said that the region is an untapped one. There are no professional hockey teams in that county, and only the Delmarva Shorebirds baseball team in the vicinity. Barack and his team, having come off working with the Tarrant County, Texas council on getting a new event center on the west side of Dallas figured out, took what they learned about the possible development surround it and took it to the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
“We approached Worcester County with not only the arena plan and the idea for a team, but also development around that area,” says Barack. “Ocean City, Maryland is one of the biggest tourist spots in the United States and it could utilized much better with a new facility in the region to go along with the development plan we have put forth, as well.”
Though, with the tight cap on memberships and some geographical hurdles, where would some of these markets look at location-wise?
“We believe that the ECHL would be geographically ideal for these markets,” Barack states, “But we aren’t going to focus solely on that. These markets could be used as relocation spots for the AHL, SPHL, even USHL (Tier-1 US Junior Hockey).”
For minor league hockey to work in any area, finding the right owner will be a crucial step. Barack would know that, as he was part owner in the Fort Worth (then Texas Brahmas) team when they were in the CHL.
“My experience with that was tremendously positive. Being involved with the ownership, you really learned how to interact with teams, the league, the city; but one takeaway was if you have a new, multi-purpose facility in a good market– it could lead to a successful franchise.”
Barack went on to say that the success of the Allen Americans, Rapid City Rush, and Colorado Eagles were due to being a solid market place that was in need of a facility that could not only host hockey, but other events to generate revenue. Along with that, Barack said that with a new arena with the right ownership in the right market would be one that is crucial when it came to relocation or expansion for any of the minor leagues.
Beyond that, there needs to be a place where the people would be interested in the game itself. There are several destinations even outside of where HTC is looking, with areas like Oklahoma City and Worcester being abandoned by the AHL in the shift to California. In the past, before the CHL folded up, there was a search for more markets, one of which being in Casper, Wyoming– which added an ice floor for the possibility of hockey at some level to be played there. While the markets of Oklahoma City and Worcester are accustomed to hockey being there, the places where HTC is looking at may not have that strong of a hockey presence or desire to have a team there– which would be a huge hurdle as ticket sales is a crux of what makes a team successful and ultimately a staple in the area.
This begs the question that if there are enough markets out there with enough interest in maybe getting a minor league hockey franchise, could there be someone crazy enough to start up a new league?? It’s hard to say, especially with the CHL being absorbed by the ECHL and the Federal Hockey League being as unstable as it is all over the Northeastern US. Though, should people see the research that HTC has been doing and where they are looking– there could come a time down the road where the market presence is too much to ignore and something gets kickstarted down the road.
While the markets that Barack and HTC have consulted may not follow through on what was put forth, the HTC team are using their past experiences in hockey operations and prior ownership to develop plans well beyond the on-ice play. By incorporating the cities on development around the proposed arenas, HTC has been bringing more sustainable proposals to the table. It opens up the number of markets for expansion and relocation beyond markets that have previously had hockey, which would create a healthy competition between markets while also allowing those markets to develop around the arenas and help the communities beyond simply laying claim to having a professional hockey team.